Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Nook - On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, written by Stephen King:

A few weeks ago I was at the sink, doing the dishes and a question popped into my head: does Stephen King have any siblings?  I have no idea where this thought came from: I hadn't read anything by King (unless you count Firestarter, when I was in high school), hadn't seen anything about him in the news.  Yet, there it was.  After a quick search on wikipedia, I learned a whole lot about Stephen King - yes, he has an older brother named David, and also he's written a book called On Writing.

After reading (and thoroughly enjoying) On Writing, I feel a little clunky writing about it.  I mean, here is a master storyteller, Stephen King - my fumbling attempt at writing about On Writing can't compare to his level of talent.  He had me choked up, reaching for the Kleenex, in not one, but two places in the book......and did I mention that it's a book about the craft of writing?  King really knows his stuff!

The book is separated into three sections.  The first is an autobiography of his early life.  It gives the reader a lot of insight into how a person could grow up to be a successful writer of the horror genre.  Once, a babysitter locked young Stevie in the closet because he kept throwing up all the eggs she cooked for him.  And one time, he had a very bad ear infection and had to endure a long needle that pierced his eardrum, while the doctor assured him it wouldn't hurt (actually, he had to have this done three times).  His earliest memory is of dropping a cinderblock on his toes, right after being stung by the wasp who resided in said cinderblock.

I should say the focus of the first section is the autobiography, but there are personal histories and revelations throughout the entire book.  The ones I enjoyed the most were the ones that showed his inspirations for his stories.  Like when he took a summer job as a janitor in his old high school and was cleaning out the girls bathroom.  This experience led him to create the opening chapter of his popular novel Carrie.  King is not one to sugar-coat any of his past experiences, however: he tells you exactly which body parts were inflicted with poison ivy when he ignorantly used the plant to wipe off after going poo in the woods.  Another example is when he admits that he has no recollection of writing Cujo, another popular novel, because he was wasted on drugs and alcohol during that part of his life.

And that's what I'm talking about: this guy can practically do this in his sleep (or in a drunken stupor)!

Part two of the book focuses on the nuts and bolts about writing: grammar, language, character, plot, etc.  He strongly recommends The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.  His argument that the writer and the reader are "engaged in an act of telepathy" is absolute genius.  I have never before thought of reading (or writing) that way, but it is so true.  Also in this section (called "toolbox") he talks about his hate of lazy adverbs and how you shouldn't tailor your words to please the ladies at the local church.  He talks about what makes good dialogue and how to try to put in enough detail in the setting without doing too much.  All the while, he gives examples of writing that is both good and bad (I love that he's not afraid to call out bad novels....sorry Bridges of Madison County).  But his argument is sound: read the good ones and the bad ones.  Chances are, you'll learn more from the bad ones, and what not to do.

The third section of the book returns to autobiographical territory, with King's near-fatal accident in 1999 (he got hit by a van while he was walking by the side of a road in Maine - the driver was busy trying to get his dog out of the backseat cooler, instead of driving).  King chronicles the accident and his slow recovery, both to health and to writing.  He finishes the book with a list of books that he recommends - I was happy to see that he and I share some favorites, like The Secret History and Harry Potter.  There are also a few on his list that have been in my reading queue, so I'll definitely make sure to check them out.  And there are a few that he liked that I just hated (no, I'm not going to name names, although King would probably urge me to do so).  I love that he ended his book about writing with a reading list - it drives home his point that to be a good writer, you must write - and read - all the time.

If you are interested in learning about the life of one of America's most popular writers, I'd urge you to read this book.  If you are interested in writing, it's a must.  If you're not a writer, this book would still be worthy of your time, because you will learn what to look for when you read (and you'll certainly spot lazy adverbs from now on).  Learn by example, and Stephen King's writing is a fine example, indeed. 


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